mental constructs of the cowboy, his image – rather than real life – to shed light on
cowboy ethics. Employing the myth and symbol method, I will analyze an array of
popular culture media on the cowboy in order to explore and interpret cowboy ethics via
an analysis of motifs and character developments. For the purpose of this paper, I will
confine my research to the image of the mythic cowboy and exclude from my analysis
historical data on the actual life of the nineteenth-century cowhand. For today, it isn’t so
much the real-life hardships of the historic cowpuncher that Americans have come to
know and love (Carlson 2000, 206-207). Historical facts are not helpful in creating, for
most Americans, the type of hero they want to have – i.e., the type of hero who can
adequately reflect their culture.15
Additionally, to thoroughly understand the mythic cowboy, it is necessary to
recognize the dominant influence of popular culture16 – that is, the belief and value
structures of a national audience – in defining the cowboy (Slotkin rev. ed. 1998, 24).
Whole libraries of dime novels and miles of celluloid have been made and devoted to the
legendary Western figure (Slotkin rev. ed. 1998, 24). Western fiction, however, did not
have as much of an impact as the genre of the Western film in entrenching notions of
“cowboyism” (Savage 1979, 22). Hence, for my analysis of the mythic cowboy, I will
15 As Paul H. Carlson wrote in The Cowboy Way, “One must ask, what influence does the truth have on the image of the mythic cowboy? The response is certainly a resounding ‘None!’ […] The [mythic cowboy] refuses to disappear because it appeals to a subconscious yearning that many of us steadfastly – perhaps romantically – refuse to give up completely. It wells from so deeply within us that without it and our other myths we could not exist” (Carlson 2000, 206).
16 By the 1920s, institutions of mass and commercial media had become so ubiquitous that it is fair to characterize it as the clearest expression of America’s “national culture” (Slotkin rev. ed. 1998, 10).